Three catches for 20 yards.
That was Charles Clay’s final stat line when the New England Patriots faced him earlier this month at New Era Field.
But Bill Belichick has been around long enough to see how a quick turnaround can bring a quick change in results as his quarter of the AFC East prepares for another afternoon with the Buffalo Bills – and the 6-foot-3, 255-pound tight end.
“He's always involved,” New England’s head coach said of Clay in his press conference Wednesday, via Patriots.com. “Yeah, he’s always involved. I mean, he’s a really good player. He’s very good down the field. He’s got great speed and discipline in his routes. He’s a very good route-runner and has an explosive speed to go with it, so he doesn’t need much, a step, a half a step. He can run away from a lot of guys.”
Clay has faced the Patriots’ defense 11 times since entering the league as a Dolphins sixth-rounder in 2011. In four seasons with Miami and the last three with Buffalo, the familiar divisional face has caught 31 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns against them.
CLAY VS. PATRIOTS
- Dec. 24, 2011: one catch on three targets, one yard, one touchdown
- Dec. 2, 2012: two catches on three targets, 26 yards
- Oct. 27, 2013: five catches on eight targets, 37 yards
- Dec. 15, 2013: one catch on two targets, two yards
- Sept. 7, 2014: two catches on six targets, 27 yards
- Dec. 14, 2014: six catches on seven targets, 59 yards
- Sept. 20, 2015: three catches on five targets, 19 yards, one touchdown
- Nov. 23, 2015: one catch on three targets, 14 yards
- Oct. 2, 2016: five catches on seven targets, 47 yards
- Oct. 30, 2016: two catches on six targets, six yards
- Dec. 3, 2017: three catches on three targets, 20 yards
Modest, yes. Clay’s side has gone 3-8 over that stretch. But over that stretch, the little things in his play have built up a good deal of reverence. Big-play production or lack thereof.
“He’s very deceptive the way he sets up routes, and he’s got two or three routes that look the same until the final break and then you could be going in a couple of different directions,” said Belichick. “He does that on the way he stems. He’s got a couple of routes like that and he’s a good catch-and-run player because he’s fast and he’s got good run-after-catch skills, so he can take an under route, or a tight-end screen, or a check-down, or something like that and turn it into a big play. But then he’s good down the field on seams, overs, crossing routes, flag patterns, wheels, things like that. He can get you in a lot of different ways.”
The way that the Patriots approached the 28-year-old Clay last time around was, unsurprisingly, mostly with strong safety Patrick Chung sitting five yards off. Though between the Tulsa product’s setup in-line, in the backfield and in the seam, free safety Devin McCourty as well as chipping defensive ends and zoning linebackers also crossed paths with him over the course of his 44 snaps.
Expect a similar approach as the 1 p.m. ET kickoff hits Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Though even if Clay is accounted for, that doesn’t mean those around him always will be.
“This guy is a really good player,” Belichick added. “But, they always involve him. Sometimes you take him away and that opens things up for [LeSean] McCoy on check-downs, or [Travaris] Cadet, or one of the other receivers. He sucks some coverage away from [Nick] O'Leary and that’s – at times, they’ve complemented each other. A lot of times it doesn’t always go to him, but he can be a part of opening it up for somebody else.”
Clay has caught 39 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns this season despite missing three games as a result of a knee scope. He’s back at full speed now, accruing 86 and 75 percent of the Bills’ offensive snaps, respectively, over the last two games. And he notched five receptions for 68 yards in Buffalo’s 24-16 win over the Dolphins in Week 15.